Everett School Board confounded by member’s video camera

What is it with the Everett School District and video cameras?

Summer 2008 brought controversy over a surveillance camera hidden in the ceiling of a Cascade High School teacher’s classroom. Now, a camera again is creating conflict — with a twist.

The flap three years ago focused on revelations that school district leaders used a hidden camera as part of an attorney-supervised investigation of former English teacher Kay Powers. The camera was secretly installed to determine what Powers and a handful of students were doing nights and weekends in her classroom. By then, the district knew Powers was ignoring the rules and using district resources on an underground student newspaper.

The school board backed the secret camera surveillance. It sided with then-superintendent Carol Whitehead, who claimed that “fiduciary responsibility” required she bring the maverick teacher and student journalists to heel. Before the smoke cleared, the district spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on attorneys fees. Whitehead left under a cloud; Powers did, too. The recording was never found.

Fast forward to the current camera conundrum. Gary Cohn is now superintendent. The school board has some new faces, too, including Jessica Olson. She campaigned on promises of increased accountability.

Olson has angered some for strident advocacy of transparency, which she believes is necessary for healthy operation of the public district. Cohn and other board members disagree with her methods. The board earlier this year voted to censure Olson, claiming she’s disruptive and abusive to staff. Contrast that censure with the Washington Coalition for Open Government honor of Olson in 2010 for keeping public business in the open.

Back to the cameras. As tensions have grown, Olson has taken to videotaping her interactions at the school district. She’s openly recorded public school board meetings. She recently videotaped a two-hour session at district headquarters. It documented her attempt to review district legal bills while being monitored, awkwardly, by another board member and the district staff. She posted the videos online.

Olson is not hiding her video camera, but it is making some at the district uncomfortable.

At the July 5 school board meeting, her camera was recording as others on the board lit into her. She posted that online, too. (The fireworks start at about 10 minutes 30 seconds into the recording).

It’s gotten complicated. The board is angry because Olson defied them and marched out of district headquarters with the attorney bills she was reviewing. She returned the records after making copies, but also posted some on Facebook.

Again, back to the camera, the one now focused on top district leaders instead of a teacher: How did those in power respond to Olson? Here’s what school district employees were told:

“The board asked for research and further study of protocols about recording staff members at their place of work and notifying speakers at public meetings that one board member may be recording their presentations which could then appear on the Internet.”

Picture that.

Legal Invoices Viewing Part 1 from Everett Schools on Vimeo.

Legal Invoices Viewing Part 2 from Everett Schools on Vimeo.

July 5th 2011 Board Meeting – Part 3 from Everett Schools on Vimeo.

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